Paula (left) and Meredith (right) became lifelong friends through letter writing. They recently reconnected and shared their story with Save the Children.
Lifelong Friendship Through Sponsorship
Meredith Fields remembers the day she got her first glimpse of the little girl named Paula from Finland. It was 1960 and Meredith was 9 years old. Her mother, Ann Fields, had just agreed to sponsor Paula. “Save the Children sent us her biography and a tiny black-and-white photo,” said Meredith. “There was this little girl in a sweater. She was 10 years old. It took off from there – I wrote letters and Paula wrote letters.”
The girls bonded over things they had in common. They were about the same age and both were the second child in their families. They discussed books they liked and shared news of family and school.
Meredith loved Paula’s descriptions of life in Finland. “There were all these details that were so exotic to me,” she recalls. “Like they all took saunas. Then they would run and jump in a river full of ice and snow. Also, it was dark all winter and light all summer. It was just the most exciting thing to have this person in our lives. I got a sense of another world. It was thrilling to imagine this life above the Arctic Circle.”
But there were many aspects of Paula’s life that she did not write about in her letters. “I avoided all the misery,” said Paula. “I just tried to describe everything around me. It was a relief – letter-writing was a good way to escape from reality.”
Paula’s father had died a few months earlier, leaving Paula’s mother with four young children to raise on her own. Her mother felt driven to do all she could for her children, including taking a job as a janitor that involved hard physical work like hauling frozen logs. There was no family nearby to help, and Paula’s mother – who carried emotional scars from being a refugee as a teenager – grew increasingly anxious. “She was very troubled,” said Paula.
Paula’s sponsor family gave her hope. “They wanted to help and they were so generous,” she recalls. “It was so nice to get photographs from them and descriptions of their family.” Sometimes they sent packages too, filled with school supplies and other thoughtful gifts. “They were just tremendous. I thought: ‘Why me?’”
Save the Children also helped pay for Paula’s education. And the organization helped the broader community by providing school meals, shoes, health care and goods to support livelihoods, such as sewing machines and equipment for fishing and lumber work. (Save the Children’s sponsorship programs today have moved away from direct support to individual children; instead, they provide health and education services to whole communities.)
“Being a sponsored child gave me so much, physically, economically and spiritually,” says Paula, “and I forgot the bad things.”
Paula Visits Her Sponsor Family in America
After 10 years of writing letters back and forth, Paula and Meredith met face to face. Paula flew to the United States in March 1970 to stay with Meredith’s family in Concord, Massachusetts for five months. “I was 18 and she was 19,” says Meredith. “I think we both experienced the interesting and complex reality of being together as people rather than whatever we had imagined through our childhood correspondence.”
Among Paula’s fondest memories are the conversations she had with Meredith’s mother, Ann, who was active in many civic organizations and had a strong desire to make the world a better place. “We talked about current events and social issues,” recalls Paula. “We had conversations that were deep. She was just a wonderful person and she influenced me enormously. I wouldn’t be who I am without that relationship.”
“You were her daughter,” adds Meredith.
Ongoing Tradition of Giving
Meredith and Paula reunited in November, 2017 when Paula came to the States for 10 days. They returned to places in Concord that Paula remembered from her time there nearly 50 years earlier. They also visited Save the Children’s office in Fairfield, Connecticut to share their story and meet people from the organization they say changed both their lives in incredible ways.
“My story shows the profound influence sponsorship can have for the child of the sponsors,” she said. “I hope people realize when they consider sponsorship what it could mean to their children, grandchildren and others!”
Meredith has continued her mother’s tradition and has been a child sponsor since 1984. Her first child was a girl from Honduras. After that, she sponsored several girls from Mali, including a girl named Safiatou, who she has sponsored since 2012.
“The child is the official beneficiary, but I feel I have also benefited incredibly,” says Meredith. “Each sponsored child has given me a link to a world I otherwise would not have known. It’s a fascinating experience. It opens up the world. It’s a gift.”
Paula Vartiainen is now a published author. Her first book, Taftihame, a novel based on her early childhood, has won several awards. Before she retired, Paula worked as a teacher and vocational counsellor, helping immigrants and refugees, and preparing working class youth to go to university.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t had the good example of the Fields family,” she said.
Paula’s next writing project will focus on her experiences as a sponsored child and the stories of other “saved children” from the 1950s and 60s in post-war northern Finland.
One man she met recently still treasures the toy car his sponsor family sent him more than 50 years ago.
“Many, many sponsored children continue the good work,” she adds. “I just recommend it so much. Sponsorship doesn’t just benefit the single child – it gives to the broader community and continues to give to future generations.”
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